Dam the Status Quo

Highlights from a Discussion of the Colorado River Basin and Glen Canyon Dam

Before Developing Water Strategies for the Future, We Must Rectify the Decisions of the Past

As the ongoing effects of climate change are realized throughout the West, an extensive discussion analyzing the influential role of the Colorado River Basin, with its Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell in particular, was recently held to further examine our approach to water management strategies. The three-panel discussion, organized by Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom and hosted by Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network, demonstrated that in order to develop water strategies of the future, we must first resolve the water management mistakes of the past.

Colorado River Water Conference – scientists, Native leaders and government officials – image (screenshot): Scott King

“I got to see firsthand what the Glen Canyon Dam did to the Grand Canyon,” Segerblom said. “Since then I’ve realized that the dam never should have been built. But we are at a point in history where we’re ready to flip the switch, move forward, and figure out how we get around the dam. Symbolically draining Lake Powell would be huge, showing that we recognize our arrogance and we’re willing to admit mistakes when we’ve made them.” 

When Glen Canyon Dam was built by the US Bureau of Reclamation from the late 1950s-early 1960s, it helped form Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the United States. Despite servicing water to seven states across the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins, the dam has become a point of contention between environmental advocates and water managers.

Today, with the accelerating effects of climate change being experienced across the West on a daily basis, concerns regarding the future of the Colorado River Basin are coming to a head. 

“We’re looking at a future in which stream flows in the Colorado River Basin are very likely to decline further by 10-20%, potentially 30% or more in the next three to four decades,” said Jeff Lukas, a former scientist with Western Water Assessment Program and principal of Lukas Climate Research and Consulting. “Reservoirs are going to become less effective in fulfilling the purposes for which they were built. Climate change tends to aggravate the negative impacts that we associate with [reservoirs], where they increasingly act as sediment traps and accumulate other water quality issues.”

Building on the idea of climate change facilitating reservoirs becoming ‘sediment traps,’ Dr. David Kreamer, president of the International Association of Hydrologists, also expressed his concerns.

“With lower water levels, sediment can be mobilized a lot more easily,” Kreamer said. “When a river goes into a reservoir, it slows down and sediment drops out and very often forms a delta. So as water levels drop more and more, sediment can be mobilized and moved downstream.”

According to Kreamer, lower water levels could also mean warmer water temperatures, which also brings its own set of problems to reservoirs. 

“When reservoirs heat up more than water that would otherwise be underground or flowing in-stream, not only can quagga mussels and other invasive species come in, but also one of the big concerns for many reservoirs is the appearance of cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae. [Cyanobacteria] can be fairly toxic in water systems and would shut down withdrawing water for drinking purposes, which is something that water managers are always aware of as far as water quality goes.” 

Colorado River – image: Sylvi, cc 2.0

Kreamer also stressed the importance of the relationship between surface water and groundwater of the Colorado River Basin.

“A United States Geological Survey [USGS] study showed that over 50% of the Colorado surface water flow was due to base flow from groundwater,” Kreamer said. “In times of drought, people rely more and more on groundwater, where in some places water dropped a couple of feet in a decade. Today, groundwater levels can drop several feet in just a year or two, so there are associated problems with dropping water tables because diminishment of groundwater will also mean diminishment in the flow of the surface water.”

Dr. Burke W. Griggs, law professor at Washburn University who has previously represented the state of Kansas in federal and interstate water matters, reaffirmed the urgency of changing our approach to water management, particularly as it relates to groundwater pumping, as a result of climate change.

“The era of modern abundance is over and we’re in a period of permanent depletion because of over-allocation from groundwater over-pumping,” Griggs said. “One of the biggest problems in western water management is the willful ignorance of groundwater as a supply. Climate change is destroying the efficacy of the design principles upon which federal reservoirs were built and so now we have siltation of reservoirs, which means a reservoir becomes like a burned-out and collapsed aquifer. It’s a water supply that will never be viable again.”

The second portion of the discussion covered the water rights of indigenous tribes in the Colorado River Basin and the ongoing efforts to have those rights recognized. Previously left out of water-related decisions in the past, getting tribes involved in the preservation of the Colorado River is seen as an essential step toward ensuring the health of the river system in a future wrought with climate change. 

“At the signing of the Drought Contingency Plan [DCP] on Hoover Dam, there weren’t any tribes at the table; yet, our water is being used under that document,” said Timothy Williams, who has served as chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe for over 14 years. “Hopefully, when the 2026 guidelines come out, you’ll see tribes at the table and you’ll see the full magnitude and true representation of what the river truly is and who has rights to the river at that time.” 

Greater indigenous representation and involvement in water rights and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin follow the greater advocacy efforts taken up by indigenous tribes in recent years.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a growing number of indigenous authors and writers who have been educating the general public and the message has been that we have more to offer than beads, feathers and drums,” said Forrest Cuch, former Director of Indian Affairs in the State of Utah and a member of the Ute Indian Tribe. “We have a wealth of ancient knowledge that can save the world, but we must listen, learn and move together as one people to make the changes that are vitally needed. Native people from South America to the Arctic have begun to protest and call attention to the atrocities of environmental destruction. This is just one example of how Native people have partnered with environmental scientists who see the seriousness of this challenge and have the science to back it up, but are also not being heard.” 

The indigenous panel also featured Nikki Cooley, of the Diné (Navajo) Nation in northern Arizona. Cooley is the Co-manager and Interim Assistant Director of the Indigenous Teacher Education Tribe and Climate Change Program and shared her experience overcoming not only Western barriers but cultural and ceremonial responsibilities as well to become the first Navajo woman to obtain a commercial river guide license in the Grand Canyon.

Dusk over Grand Canyon National Park – image: Rollie Rodriguez, cc 2.0

“For a lot of our iconic landscapes such as the Grand Canyon National Park, Native people were removed so people of different colors or different wealth, white people, could enjoy these parks,” Cooley said. “[The Grand Canyon] is dominated by non-Indigenous commercial river operators, river guides and river companies to the point that there’s simply no room for someone else to come in. Grand Canyon National Park should have a special permit for a Native American commercial river company as one way to not only boost the economics, but also the status of our tribal relatives around the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.” 

From a personal perspective, Cooley understands what it means to have opportunity and access to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. 

“The reason I became a commercial river guide was because someone provided me that access because otherwise, I never would have known about that as something that I could do,” Cooley said. “I had to put aside my cultural or ceremonial responsibilities with the permission of my family members. Then you also have to be willing to take on all the Western barriers like the fact that because I’m a woman, I was definitely not always welcomed or treated respectfully and faced sexual harassment, but it did not deter me because [my representation] is something I believed was very important.”

Lake Powell, Utah and Arizona – image: John A. Henderson, cc 2.0

The final panel of the discussion advocated that in understanding past failures of western water management approaches, we can use those shortcomings to inform and guide prospective opportunities to ensure the preservation of the Colorado River Basin into the future. 

“Since the early 80s-late 90s, we’ve learned that there is a weakness in the government approach to building large, single-purpose river basins through dams that focused on bringing cheap water, cheap electricity and water reliability,” said David Wagner, a former senior staff specialist on water energy, climate change and science applications in the US House of Representatives. “We’re using traditional approaches that no longer work with the environment that we’re facing now, particularly as we’ve seen the reliability of Lake Powell and Lake Mead go down as their elevations have dropped. The methods we have used to forecast and manage water are no longer applicable to the challenging environment we see today.”

Dam at Lake Powell – image: Lord Lucan Lives, cc 2.0

Despite the urgency of the challenge in front of the Colorado River Basin, there still exists opportunity so long as we recognize that changes in our approach need to be made.

“The nations of the world and the private sector have done a remarkable job of promoting renewable energy resources, encouraging electric vehicles and making changes in our energy sector, based on the need to address the issues associated with climate change,” said Dan Beard, former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. “The water establishment refuses to recognize that climate change exists. But there isn’t anybody who’s predicting more water in the Colorado River over the next 30-50 years, so we have to accept the fact that there’s going to be less water available, whether it’s 11 million acre feet a year or 9 million acre feet a year.”

That’s why Eric Balkan, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, advocates a change in approach to Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell as a starting point moving forward. 

“To seriously look at reservoir consolidation, we would have to do an environmental and economic analysis of phasing out Lake Powell and moving water downstream to Lake Mead,” Balkan said. “The idea of phasing out Lake Powell is in front of us and it’s going to happen as we’re looking at losing hydropower at the dam in the next couple years and having a dead pool a few years after that. So the proposition has really changed to how we want to re-operate Glen Canyon Dam in a way that allows the restoration of Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon.”

Consequently, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell could coincidentally serve as a significant first step in preserving the future health of the Colorado River Basin’s water infrastructure.

“All diversions of dams in the Colorado River Basin should be stopped immediately, as any new diversion or dam is going to exacerbate current water supply conditions and make things worse,” Beard said. “There’s not enough water now, nor will there ever be enough water in the future to keep both Lake Mead and Lake Powell operational. You can’t have both, you have to have one or the other, so Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam should be scrapped and completely decommissioned before we can move forward.”

For Wagner, the promise of opportunity that was once a defining part of the American West’s identity can once again be realized with revitalized water management strategies.

“There are opportunities here with the right leadership and with the right set of tools,” Wagner said. “We’ve seen cities, like Las Vegas and Tucson, rise to the occasion by instead of depending on a single source of water supply, developing water reuse and recycling by engaging in education, conservation and efficiency measures. While it doesn’t bring the big ribbon-cutting opportunity like a dam, what it does bring you is small amounts of water that in aggregate can provide and support a significant population in the West. That takes leadership, transparency and making sure that social equity and the indigenous people’s equities are part of the equation because they’re not on the outside looking in, they are part of the equation and part of this discussion moving forward.” 

Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.


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